August 30, 2011

Epic Monsters

There has been some talk lately about epic adventures and monsters for 4E...or rather the lack of them. Today I’d like to talk about the monster side of epic. While this article is geared for 4E, many of the concepts can be applied to any system when it comes to providing epic monsters.

One complaint seen repeatedly is that there are no new monsters to challenge epic level characters. You can’t write epic adventures without epic monsters. I decided to write some up to post here, but ran into some problems rather quickly. These problems are fairly fundamental to epic monsters and epic adventures so I thought I would take a closer look at the topic.

Let’s start off by defining what I mean by epic; which is divided into two definitions. The first is level based; epic adventures and monsters fall between levels 21-30. Second is more subjective wherein epic adventures take place in unique locations and the characters are dealing with global and planar problems. Likewise the monsters need to be epic as well. It is this second definition of epic that causes all the problems.

Epic means they are not fighting kobolds anymore. They are fighting exotic, mythic, unique monsters. They are not fighting giants; they are fighting the King of the Giants. It is hard to write epic monsters if you are also trying to create generic types. Sure, a designer can create the Platinum Golem as a new epic monster, which does more damage and some new funky attack ability. However, this is not epic. It is just a jacked up version of what has come before, Stone to Iron to Platinum. To the players this is not epic. To make the Platinum Golem truly epic it would have to be a one-of-a-kind creation by a god.

There is a reason why the Tarrasque felt like an epic monster. Part of it was the high end stats, but also part of it is the fact there is only one Tarrasque in the entire world. If a character manages to kill the Tarrasque, or even just fight it, they will have done something that no other person on the planet has ever done before (or at least not recently). This is epic stuff.

Does that mean all epic level monsters need to be unique? Yes and no. It is possible to create epic monsters that are both not one-of-a-kind and are still unique. For example: the Ghosthunds are undead beasts about the size of a horse. They are the animated remains of dogs once loyal to the ancient Titans wherein their loyalty was carried over into undeath. So, while they are not one-of-a-kind creatures (there are a bunch of them still in existence) they are still unique (there are no other creatures like them on the planet and never will be again).

This leads to a second component of epic monsters. You do not fight epic at lower levels. By this I mean, you do not fight Tarrasque Spawn at level 12. You fight the real Tarrasque at level 30. To keep a monster epic you have to make it unique to the epic tier, without “lesser” versions. If you can not make a monster that is truly unique, i.e. one-of-a-kind (like a “named” end boss), then do not put out “lesser” versions of the monster. This is a method of making a generic monster epic.

Personally, I think WotC’s newest monster book, Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, is on the right track. Sure there were no monsters over level 20, but a lot of the monsters were unique. For example, they had new dragons, but they were not a generic new color. Instead they were specific dragons. Taking this concept further, a monster book detailing epic level monsters would be less about generic monsters and instead have a lot of specific monsters. While the Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale had its specific monsters tied into the setting, you could still write specific monsters for a generic setting. And this might just be the way you have to write epic monsters.

To make epic monsters, it becomes less about epic stats and more about epic stories. The background of the monster becomes the important part, the thing that makes it truly epic. I find as a designer it is easier for me to come up with new stats, but harder to do the story part. And the story is exactly what you need to make monsters epic.

So, in conclusion there are three steps a monster designer can take to make epic monsters.
-Make the monster unique, one-of-a-kind.
-If the monster is not one-of-a-kind, do not have non-epic tier versions of the monster.
-Make the monster’s background epic.

1 comment:

Broken Fingerprints said...

Great post. I think you nailed the definition of epic monsters.

I would say that the most epic monsters in any game I've played (whether at epic tier or not) were the BBEGs. The guys the story revolved around. The guys that our characters hated so much, we as players started hating them too. So, I think a good way to really make a monster epic would be to make sure the characters know a lot about it before they fight it. Give it a story within the world and then send them after it. That would make things all that more epic.